“Adventures in Science and Health Education for a Gender Fabulous Child”
March 30, 2016
I would not have guessed the in the month before turning six, my child would be learning about digestive bacteria and DNA – and then confusing them together as an explanation for gender identity.
I have seen my children go through physical growth spurts, when, in what seems like just a few days (or hours!), all of the clothes are suddenly too small. Sometimes the growth is uneven, so that the socks become too small on Monday, then the pants on Thursday, and then the shirts on the following Friday. As our oldest child approached age six, I began to realize that the mental and emotional growth may happen the same way.
During a 3-week session of summer “school”, our soon to be six-year old learned about digestive tract bacteria. “Daddy, there are little worms in my belly that help me eat my food. I need to drink yogurt to help feed those worms.” Not exactly a comprehensive biological explanation of symbiosis, but just about perfect for that age, I think.
Sometime during that period, we also had a few conversations about genitals, sparked by the question, “Why do I have a penis?” I think it was question #537 of that particular day. It came during bath time. Sometimes Daddy has to pause to think about the right answers. Our child had made it very clear that being either a boy or a girl was very much still an open question, I couldn’t just say, “Because you are a boy.” And “The fairies gave it to you when you were born” did not seem appropriate to the evident seriousness of the request.
So Daddy came up with an answer that was probably too long, but served as a starting point: “Everybody’s body is made up of lots of tiny little cells, and the amazing thing is that each cell has instructions inside of it that tell your body how to grow. So when your cells were growing into the baby that was you, the instructions said to grow a penis. Every person has instructions that are different, which is why some bodies grow a penis and some bodies grow a vagina.”
The almost-six year old pondered that idea for some time, and there were follow-up questions. It became evident that my child considered the instructions in their cells to be synonymous with the worms in their belly. I worried that I had just confused matters, but before I had a chance to figure out how to separate the two, we moved on to an even more important topic: the almost-six year old wanted to know if their penis was going to get bigger. This led to some fumbling attempts to explain puberty.
The puberty lesson was definitely a work in progress, mostly because it takes some effort to figure out gender neutral explanations. As it turned out, the important issue for my child was not penis growth, but confirmation that having or not having a penis was not what made someone a boy or a girl. And that was a comfort because this kid was still none too sure about how this whole boy-girl thing should work out in the end and this odd little flap of flesh was certainly not going to be the determining factor.
Somehow, my child managed to put it all of this together in a way that makes sense. “Daddy, my worms will decide if I am a boy or a girl when I am bigger.” Not exactly a comprehensive biological explanation of gender identity, but just about perfect for this kid, I think.